The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


be set right again by comparison with another pedigree, not even by that of a cousin by blood.

The circles drawn into community of life, either by marriage or in any other way, are not washed out of their former connections before entering the pale of friendship and kinship. Each family carried along with it the honour and luck and fate that constituted its soul, and by becoming kin by marriage Ottar or Rognvald acquired the ancestors of his new brothers in-law.

To modern readers there is a difference not of degree but of quality between such matter-of-fact persons as Klyp or Olmod and a dragon slayer like Sigurd Fafnirsbane, who belongs to poetry as we would say. But the difficulty is all on our side; in ancient times, Sigurd was a kinsman just as real as any historical person. A good many Norwegian and Icelandic families felt affinity with the famous slayer of the dragon and his Burgundian brothers-in-law.

All these clans had lawfully and rightfully acquired the Frankish and Burgundian hamingja by marrying or otherwise concluding vital alliance with circles possessing the deeds of the southern heroes. We are still able to point out the links which connected the families of the north with the mighty clans on the Rhine. How Herald Fairhair acquired the right to enter Burgundian, Frankish and Goth kings among his. ancestors is clearly shown through his pedigree. His family is connected with Danish kings who claimed kinship with the Ragnar house, and these kings had ancestors who were allied to princes in Russia or on the southern shores of the Baltic. Some Icelandic families evidently concluded the alliance that brought Sigurd into their hamingja during their expeditions to the western Isles, where they settled temporarily and were brought into contact with descendants of Danish viking clans, first and foremost that of the Sons of Ragnar Lodbrok.

In the case of Ottar, we are not without some hints as to how he came into possession of such a far-off hamingja as that working in Sigurd and the Burgundian kings who ruled in Worms. It has already been pointed out that some persons


in the Hyndluljód indicate a relationship between the hero of the poem and the family whose most powerful member was Erling Skjalgson, the “king” of the Rugians. Erling married Astrid Tryggvi's daughter, a great-grandchild of Harald Fair-hair, and thus became brother-in-law of the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason. It is not unlikely that Erling and the Hyndiuljód are nearly contemporary, and in Erling's marriage we have possibly an explanation as to how Danish and southern hamingja had filtered into leading families of western Norway.

These facts suggest another view of ancient poetry and saga than the purely literary theory current now, which rests on the rather naïve acceptance of modern literary conditions as applying to all times and cultures. Poems and novels are to us substantial wares brought to market by poets and handed in books over the counter to customers tendering a fixed price. But the sagas and poems of ancient times were property belonging to individual persons, the self-revelations of particular clans. The sagas do not rest on an author, but on an owner, one who acknowledges the past as it is here set forth, maintains it as his own, is proud of it and depends on it. The true saga, that which in its inmost essence is inspired by repetition by word of mouth, has in reality never worked its way loose from the personal mandate. Even the Icelandic sagas, which in artistic form are strongly influenced by European literature, still bear the birthmark of being told from the point of view of a clan, and expressing the clan's private past. The Volsungasaga is the prelude to Ragnar Lodbrok's, and it ends with Hofdithord, the chieftain of Skagafiord, according to the reckoning of the Landnáma, fifth man from the famous viking chief. The Hervor's saga — the saga of the sword Tyrfing — bears its stamp of proprietorship in the genealogies at the end, referring to a Norwegian and Icelandic family — the Angantyr clan — which prided itself on its connections with the kingly house of Sweden. The Beowulf has become regular literature in the hand of the late poet, but on a closer scrutiny of the West-Saxon pedigrees with their Beow and Scyld we may get an inkling of the circle in which the interest for the legends was fostered.


In accordance with our notions of the ways of poets who borrow their themes from neighbouring literatures and imitate their predecessors in the craft, we talk of the ancient legends as wandering from land to land, and we build up ingenious speculations as to how the Sigurd saga passed from the Franks on the Rhine to the scalds of the North. But in reality the songs or legends were not handed about loosely, they lived their way through the world from one circle of people to another. These are indeed not legends at all, not poetical treasures, but experiences which are kept living and creative in human souls. They have been passed on from place to place by tinging soul, in the sense that mind was drawn into mind and made to participate in the honour it held. They went with the maiden when, rich in noble ornaments, she entered into her husband's home and brought with her an honour strong in mind and compelling to action; they spread when a man mingled himself with his foster-brother and became a part of him, received his forefathers, received his deeds, received his thoughts, was bound by his hamingja. The predominance of the Volsung deeds and fate in Scandinavian poetry testifies to the fact that the honour of the Volsungs was a treasured heirloom in some of the leading, most influential families of the viking period.

Going back to the Hyndluljód as the truest picture of an ancient clan, we see now that the circles enumerated belong to Ottar and his kinsmen as wholes. All that the allied families had and were flowed into the man's luck. And this spiritual amalgamation is of greater depth than we at first imagine, because Ottar's kindred were not principally a number of persons, but a mass of deeds — luck, honour and “fate”. The names of the pedigree are clothed with epithets and short descriptive phrases indicating the life that had throbbed in the old heroes and pulsated from them into their descendants, the happenings and achievements in which their honour had manifested itself. We cannot understand the poem as it was understood by the old-world listeners, because to them every epithet and every line called up a host of memories. Our compositions tell a story to an audience wishing to know how it all happened, how it


began and how it ended; the ancient poems were only reminders or hints by which deeds that lived in men's minds were called forth and made vivid before their eyes.

The family is primarily a hamingja, and as a soul it is incorporated into new kinsmen. The persons are only representatives of the hamingja, and their power consists in their having been able to regenerate the life rich in distinctive features that flowed through their ancestors. The hamingja is always something present, and the past is only real insofar as its fate has been renewed again and again in a sequence of transient generations. These old heroes have never been outside reality. A Sigurd, a Hrolf, a Ragnar have come to life again and again, have been born forward from clan to clan, they have been ancestors whose deeds were revived in fresh human lives.

The hamingja is a present thing, and it is a living whole, not a complex being split up into a number of persons. We see from the example of a Harald or from that of an Ottar how a world met within the individual human being. In the king of Norway they crowd together: Norwegian village kings and chieftains who fought, married and added to their hamingja, Danish throne kings with a mass of deeds welling forth from the nothingness of earliest time, together with heroic clans who lived and battled on the Rhine or in the plains of Russia. It is a whole world, not only countries wide but centuries deep, all differences of time perish in the living renewal that is contained in a couple of generations.

The ancestors, then, are not figures seated in state on a lofty pile of years reached by laborious climbing through degrees and generations. The modern and the ancient ideas as to the founder of a race are far apart. When we lack the number of rings required to make a decent ladder we must hide our heads among the ephemeral crowd of those who may indeed confess to being, but cannot pretend to have been. The old progenitor simply resided within his children if he existed at all, and his heir grasped him directly by thrusting a hand into his own breast. Thus the brother-in-law or the friend immediately draws the old hero into his hamingja by touching his kinsmen,


and after having mingled blood and mind with his new brothers he feels the ancestor's power in his own limbs.

This suggests a history of another structure than ours, not a chronological series of occurrences hanging on the pegs of dates, but living events coming to light again and again — in slightly different shapes, perhaps, but substantially the same — throughout subsequent generations. History to us is something past and done with, a crystallisation of completed incidents which can neither be obliterated nor in the least affected by later developments. Primitive history, on the other hand, is living and changing; not only do later phases rearrange the events into new patterns, but if history does not propagate itself it disappears, and the events sink into the same nothingness that covers events which never came to be. Primitive history lacks certain time proportions which to us are the foundation of all historical truth, and consequently it cannot wield the blocks of the centuries and build them up to towering pyramids. But primitive and ancient historians can do one thing which we cannot or have not yet been able to do, they can give the past as a whole explaining the present, whereas our history can be nothing but a row of torsos.

The secret of the incompatibility of the two systems lies in the fact that whereas our history forms a general self-existing organism outside the experience of all individual men, primitive and ancient history is the belongings of clans and peoples. The latter form is incomprehensible to modern men whose lives are arranged in years, and moreover, never merge into one another, but run on each in its own particular grove, and in consequence ancient traditions are naïvely set down by us as caprice or fanciful legend-mongering. In fact, the chasm is so great between the systems, historical though they be both of them, that facts cannot by any key be translated from one mode into the other. It is labour lost to analyse “myths” in legendary and historical elements in order to elicit a “kernel of truth”.

Thus the problem of the structure of the Teutonic clan solves itself. It is waste of labour to seek a rigid system behind


the laws, and it is still more useless to search for a universal Germanic system of which the later schemata are variations. The problem is primarily psychological rather than social, the form of the clan depends more on an inner structure than on an outer organisation. All who had the same thoughts and traditions, the same past and the same ambitions possessed one soul and were of one clan. This inner structure must necessarily develop itself into a strong external organism, but the force worked in living bodies of men which were eminently amenable to the plastic touch of circumstances and might take different patterns among different peoples. There is no earthly reason to suppose that the Norwegians and the Danes, the Lombards and the Anglo-Saxons ever had exactly the same social and legal customs.

The clan was a living whole, now wider, now narrower, varying in accordance with the strength of the hamingja, and adapting itself to the moment. It had as its core a body of friends which could never split up into fragments. This nucleus was never identical with the family or the father's house; not only did it comprise the brothers-in-law, but it extended literally in the breadth as is indicated by the juxtaposition of sons and brothers' sons in the same category. Under the stress of the moment, and under actual political conditions, it might swell out into the dimensions of a tribe or even a people. Normally the state was not a hamingja; the clans were held together by allegiance to a chief, and by membership in a legal order centred in the law-thing or moot place where people met several times in the year. This legal community did not prevent the clans from asserting their rights severally and from carrying on feuds among themselves, the law-thing meant only that differences among the members could be brought before the community and settled either by sentence or mediation according to compelling forms. But when the people acted unanimously - in war, in expeditions, in any common enterprise whatever - all the individual hamingjas melted into one, and one frith reigned supreme with one honour through the entire corporation. At such times killing was murder and villainy.


There is no make-believe in primitive and ancient society; the comrades are really one hamingja, and consequently one body, and when the fellowship loosened and everyday forms regained their sway the hamingja of the whole slept or was temporarily suspended as we would say, but it did not cease to exist.

Among the Teutons this larger hamingja was generally - though not necessarily — that of the king or chieftain. In war times his luck absorbed the lucks of his followers, and thus his gods and ancestors became the gods and ancestors of the whole people. In history it is not possible to distinguish between the king's clan and the people he led, simply because the two were identical in their relations with foreign bodies.

Without re-birth no eternity — to gauge the fulness of this sentence is a necessary condition for understanding what it means to have life and to die so that none knows one's name.

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